Leonardo da Vinci is one of the towering figures of Western art. Born in humble circumstances, Leonardo ended his life as ‘first painter and engineer’ to the French King Francis I. His achievements as an artist, architect, designer, theorist, engineer and scientist are little less than astonishing. Though many of his works were never finished, Leonardo influenced generations of artists. Leonardo trained as a painter and sculptor in the Florentine workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio. There he perfected the exceptional talent for drawing that was key to his artistic and intellectual endeavours.
In 1483 Leonardo moved to Milan, ruled by Duke Ludovico Sforza, hoping to find work as an engineer and scientist. Yet his first Milanese commission was a painting, The Virgin of the Rocks. It was conceived as the central panel of an altarpiece for the chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, attached to the church of San Francesco. For reasons that remain unclear, the confraternity rejected Leonardo’s first painting (now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris). The National Gallery’s version of 'The Virgin of the Rocks', begun in the early 1490s, was only completed between 1506 and 1508. Two more paintings from the Immaculate Conception altarpiece, by associates of Leonardo, are displayed in this room.
Leonardo left Milan in 1499, shortly after French troops invaded the city, and returned to Florence. The Burlington House Cartoon dates to this turbulent period. Leonardo is known to have made several life-size works on paper (often called cartoons), but this is the only such drawing to survive. It will have been made in preparation for a painting, but Leonardo probably viewed it as a work of art in itself. Huge crowds flocked to see a similar cartoon by Leonardo, when it was put on public display in Florence in 1501.